Few passages in Holy Writ ring true like St Paul’s lines in 1 Corinthians about not being able to get a proper look at our own reflections. When I was a teenager, I told anyone who would listen that my sole aspiration in life was to direct critically acclaimed low-budget films heavy on atmosphere and romantic yearning, with that sort of hazy look you get in Jane Campion and Picnic at Hanging Rock. (I still wonder how they do that.) A few years later I wanted to be a professor of Restoration and 18th-century English literature at an ancient university. Now, as a 26-year-old husband and father of two and – no doubt – counting, my highest ambition is to have no grandchildren.
I realise that this is not exactly the sort of thing you shout at parties. On occasion I’ve made the mistake of mentioning my anti-patriarchal enthusiasm in the presence of friends and relations (including, alas, my own lovely maternal grandmother). The response has nearly always been one of horror at what they seemed to regard as a vicious attack on the idea of childhood itself, as if I had just kicked Mickey Mouse in the face before setting fire to a whole library of Beatrix Potter first editions.
A little over half a century ago, however, my fellow Catholics would have understood exactly what I meant. Like Louis Martin and Marie-Azélie Guérin, the holy parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux, my wife and I pray that all of our children embrace celibacy as a higher calling than married life. Canonisation in my own case seems a pretty remote contingency, but aut sanctus, aut nihil is our family motto, or would be if we had a family motto.
Hatred of celibacy has a distinguished pedigree in the Anglosphere. When Newman and his followers began publishing their beautiful Lives of the English Saints, an evangelical buffer called John C Crosthwaite – even the name smells like mustard-caked beef, vicarage soot and the superannuated hair of very large dogs – denounced their “fanatical panegyrics of virginity” as “profane” and likely to corrupt the young. His pamphlet of 1846, Modern Hagiography, makes good reading for connoisseurs of Low Church bigotry. After excoriating Newman, he goes on to call St Bega herself “preternaturally diseased” and “precociously wicked” before asking whether “there ever was such a person”. I’m sure she – or they, for there might be two of her – is praying for him even now.
He certainly needs it. Few things are as firmly established in the historical teaching of the Church as the preeminence of lifelong celibacy over the married state. It is evident from what our Protestant brethren used to call “the plain words of Scripture” in – yes, that book again – 1 Corinthians 7. St Thomas argued that it was evident from reason alone because the embrace of celibacy involves “preferring a Divine good to human goods” and “the good of the soul to the good of the body”, and the Fathers of Trent anathematised anyone who “saith that the marriage state is to be preferred before the state of virginity”. It was reiterated forcefully only two decades ago by St John Paul II, who wrote of the “objective superiority” of “the consecrated life, which mirrors Christ’s own way of life”.
It is interesting to note the clear view of John Paul II here because there are whole shelves of books with titles like Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving. These works, which purport to explicate his Theology of the Body lectures for non-specialist readers, have done more to encourage the false view among faithful Catholics that celibacy and marriage are coequals than Marvin Gaye and supermarket champagne discounts combined. Pope Francis has never been more right or more misunderstood than when he said that we don’t need to breed like rabbits – indeed, we don’t need to breed at all.
How did we get here? Most intra-Church quarrels involve an alliance between traditionalists like myself and the sort of people who vote Republican and bore you to tears talking about how “reverent” their local Novus Ordo is, against liberal antinomians. It is only the question of celibacy that unites socially respectable Catholic neoconservatives and Humanae Vitae dissenters against those of us who smoke indoors and tote around third-class relics of Blessed Karl of Austria while affirming the higher perfection of virginity.
The two groups do not, of course, agree about details: the former like to pretend that Catholicism is a kind of sex-and-babies fertility cult in which one worships God by maximising opportunities for procreation, while the latter are more interested in introducing sterility into the conjugal act. But thanks to their combined efforts we have gone in the space of some 60 years from “Virginity is good, and so in a lesser sense is marriage” to either “Let’s pretend intrinsically disordered acts are not intrinsically disordered” or “If all our kids enter religious life, how will we Catholics reproduce at a rate that allows us to win elections for Rep. Blue Blazer McEntrepreneurship?”
None of this should, heaven forbid, be taken to suggest that there is anything wrong with child-rearing. Only Gnostics believe that things created by God are bad in se. In two years of marriage there have already been hundreds, even thousands, of little moments with my wife and children that I would not trade for anything short of heaven. The fact that my hoping my girls embrace something higher does not in any way diminish the beauty of our life at home is as much as anything a proof of the Church’s claim to true catholicity. Any body that has room for me and St Bega has room for everyone.
Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow
This article first appeared in the January 20 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here